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Thomas Keneally and The Daughters of Mars

I see that The Times critic considered The Daughters of Mars “unmissable, unforgettable” while The Spectator considered this to be possibly Thomas Keneally’s best novel. Sorry guys but the words “overblown” and “baggy” come more to my mind as I think about my experience of reading this saga of a pair of Australian sisters who serve as nurses on the battlefields of World War 1.

daughtersofmarsThe novel begins in a rural farming community in New South Wales where the Durrance sisters Sally and Naomi  mourn their mother’s death from cancer. Shortly after they  answer their country’s call for volunteer medical staff to come to the aid of soldiers thousands of miles away in Europe. The pair kick their heels for a while in Alexandria, their first experience of the world outside Australia. These opening chapters failed to engage my attention in any meaningful way and it wasn’t until they were posted to the Archimedes, a hospital ship receiving the freshly mutilated from the 1915 Dardanelles campaign on the Gallipoli peninsula, that the book really began to take off.

Keneally memorably portrays the chaos of the floating operating theatre and the stress and exhaustion felt by young women called upon to make rapid judgements of who gets treated, who has to be left to die. The technical detail is often gruesome. At one point Sally removes a bandage to discover “a cavity created by something larger than a bullet – a shard of shrapnel, say – and edging from it an unexpected snake of the stomach-lining named omentum, yellow amidst blood, lacy and frayed, hanging out of the slashed gut”.  At another point, one of the nurses is confronted by a patient “whose wound once unbandaged showed a face that was half steak, and no eyes. The lack of features made his age impossible to guess.” Keneally never holds back from the realism of the injuries sustained and the often inadequate treatment options available to the dedicated medical staff as they face new forms of warfare. The star of this section of the novel is however the set piece of the torpedoing of the Archimedes. As the sisters  cling to rafts awaiting rescue, around them the night is filled with the sound of men and animals screaming for help. “… huge metal shrieks and thumps could be heard within the ship and the unearthly lament of mules and ponies went on”  Later on

…a horse with bulging eyes came swimming up, the sort they might use to pull cannon. It floundered and wallowed … It laboured away and turned to give them one last flash of a panicked, unexpectant eye. Its neck sank and the nostrils tried to hold their place above the sea. It reached a point where its hindquarters began to drag it down backwards. so it went under, whinnying until chocked off.

We’re not even half way through the novel at this point. More blood, disease and drama awaits as the sisters join another theatre of war – the Western Front. From then on, as we trace them through a series of medical staging posts and clearing stations in Normandy and the Somme, that I began to feel the novel’s ability to hold my attention waning rapidly amid the mountain of gangrene, sepsis, amputated limbs, shell shock and gas attacks and the ever widening list of characters.  Compounding the problem was that Keneally seemed to have too many themes going on, too many points he wanted to make. Many times he addresses the issue of courage and the conflict of emotions: the relief at saving a solider followed swiftly by the realisation this is simply a means to  sending him back to the front. Other themes deal with the lack of respect towards the nurses from both orderlies and superiors, who treat them as inferior to the real combatants even though they too come under fire from the enemy. Then of course we get the inevitable critique of the political and military establishment without which it seems no World War 1 novel can be complete.

At times this was a rambling story held together by the evolution of Naomi and Sally Durrance’s reactions and ability to adapt to everything that is thrown at them.  They discover strengths and skills they never realised they possessed, proving resolute and heroic in the face of adversity. What a pity Keneally decides they also have to discover love. Instead of the grand overwhelming passion that would feel more true to their natures, he has them rush around the country to hold hands in cafes and visit museums. Those scenes not only struck a false note they felt superfluous.

Overall, this was an OK reading experience. Extremely evocative in parts and refreshing in dealing with an aspect of World War 1  I knew little about (the role of the Australians). But I would have appreciated it more if Keneally hadn’t tried to over-egg the novel quite so much.

End Notes

Daughters of Mars was published in 2012. It was in the running for several prizes including the  International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award but wasn’t a winner ultimately.


5 Reasons to be cheerful

sundaysalonI’m often guilty of using this site to grumble so I thought I’d change tack and for share some positive news for once. Actually I have several things to feel cheerful about.

1. Awards. Justice at last for Jim Crace whose novel Harvest should have won the 2013 Booker Award because it was simply outstanding and far, far superior to the other shortlisted titles.  I was delighted to see this week’s announcement declaring this book the winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. It’s a recognition that is long overdue. If you don’t know this novel, take a look at my review 

2. Acquisitions. Two of my library reservations came through yesterday. Just in time because I was on the final few pages of Ghost Road by Pat Barker which I didn’t enjoy particularly.  I now have The World of Thomas Hawkins by Antonia Hodgson to look forward to opening tonight. This is the second book by her which features Thomas Hawkins, a young ne’er-do-well in seventeenth century England who somehow can’t help getting involved in events which threaten his life. Her debut novel The Devil in the Marshalsea which I read just last month was so good I was delighted to find her follow up was just out.  The World of Thomas Hawkins is a sequel to The Devil in the Marshalsea but the publishers say it can also be read as a standalone historical mystery.

Here’s the blurb from the publishers Hodder & Stoughton:

Spring, 1728. A young, well-dressed man is dragged through the streets of London to the gallows at Tyburn. The crowds jeer and curse as he passes, calling him a murderer. He tries to remain calm. His name is Tom Hawkins and he is innocent. Somehow he has to prove it, before the rope squeezes the life out of him.

Doesn’t that just want to make you open the book immediately?? For me yes, but then I also collected another novel which I’ve had my eye on for some time. A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar, is a novel about revenge and redemption, that was named this week as a winner of a Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. The UK publishers Hodder & Stoughton describe it as:

Deep in the heart of history’s most infamous concentration camp, a man lies dreaming. His name is Shomer, and before the war he was a pulp fiction author. Now, to escape the brutal reality of life in Auschwitz, Shomer spends his nights imagining another world – a world where a disgraced former dictator now known only as Wolf ekes out a miserable existence as a low-rent PI in London’s grimiest streets.

The subject matter will not make this a comfortable read I’m sure but it’s such an interesting premise that I’m looking forward to getting stuck in soon.

3. Progress. Although I’ve weened myself off doing challenges for the last few years, I still have a few reading projects underway.  While I haven’t made any conscious effort to make progress on them it seems I’m further ahead than I would have expected. With the completion of The Ghost Road, I find I’ve read 25 of the 47 Booker Prize titles on my list so well over the half way stage. I’m also exactly half way through my Classics Club project with just over two and half years left to read the remaining 25 novels. And I’m bang on target with the TBR Challenge run by Roof Beam Reader which is the one and only ‘challenge’ I’m doing this year. Usually I’m moaning that I’m behind schedule with my reading so it makes it a pleasant surprise to be right where I want to be.

4. Unplanned reading. A couple of months ago I decided that if I wanted to preserve my sanity I needed to stop creating reading schedules. I was spending too much time fretting about the fact that if I didn’t read book X then I’d be behind with my world literature project and if I didn’t read book Y I’d be late in delivering a review of an ARC.  Reading stops being fun when you’re having to read a particular book or following a prescribed schedule. So instead I just adopted the behaviour of picking up whatever book was on the top of the two piles nearest to hand – one is my TBR challenge listed books and the other is a motley collection of classics and Booker prizes. And if I don’t fancy what my hand rests on, then I just scan the vast number of titles yet unread in the bookshelf.  Hassle free reading is much more delightful than scheduled reading.

5. Library news. Progress this week on the campaign in which I’m involved to save our local library. A High Court judge has ordered our local authority to respond to our complaint within one week. We’ll then have a further week to make our own responses before the judge will rule if there is a case that needs to be heard. So though we’re not yet claiming victory, it’s at least some positive news.

Kinder than Solitude by Yiyun Li

Kinder than SolitudeWhen a novel is shortlisted for the Folio Prize and the author is someone whose previous work has been shortlisted for International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Guardian First Book Award and the PEN/Hemmingway award, I expect to experience something pretty special. I’m glad that I didn’t know at the time I read Yiyun Li’s novel Kinder than Solitude, that the 2015 Folio judges were “looking for excellence” and they felt their shortlisted titles had “boldness and experiment.” Had I known that, my expectations would have been even higher and my disappointment consequently greater.

This is the story of four young people in Beijing.  Moran  and Boyang are close friends whose friendship is tested when Ruyu enters their life.  Sent by her adopted aunts to live in the city, she’s constructed a barrier of icy-heartedness around herself  that she steadfastly maintains despite Moran and Boyang’s best efforts to break through.  A fourth member of their little group is Shaoi, a college student a student who, it’s hinted, may have been involved in the recent Tiananmen Square protests.  In a macabre poisoning she becomes severely brain damaged.

By the time the book opens, twenty one years have elapsed and Shaoai has just died.   Ruyu has moved to the USA. Twice married and divorced she has constructed a barrier around her life through which it seems no person or event can penetrate. Moran also emigrated and divorced, has plenty of creature comforts but has a largely sterile and solitary life.  On the surface, Boyang is the only one of the trio that is enjoying life. He has remained in Beijing, a handsome intelligent man who drives a flash BMW and has a string of successful businesses,  this ‘diamond bachelor’ finds happiness eludes him. He’s neither young enough to form genuine relationships with the girls he meets nor old enough to be a genuine sugar daddy.

It’s a simple premise for a novel in which a dual time frame is employed to show how the lives of members of this quartet are irrevocably changed by an event in their past. The publishers suggest this is a hybrid novel; a thriller in which the identity of the novel is gradually revealed and also a psychological examination of the way in which we are all trapped by the past.

I’m not convinced it lives up to either of those descriptions. It’s not really a mystery story because there are enough signals to make it obvious to any averagely intelligent reader which character was responsible for the poisoning. Observations on human nature abound certainly but instead of illuminating the action they too often border on the portentous or banal.

As an example, the narrator declares at one point:

Nothing destroys a liveable life more completely than unfounded hope.

And at another:

But how does one tell where one’s true self stops and makes way for all the borrowed selves?

Perhaps other readers have more tolerance that I did for such pseudo aphorisms.

It was brave of Li to make her central figures uninspiring and unsympathetic for much of the novel.  Their current lives are bleak and sterile, full of suppressed and unspoken emotions. It’s not until at least halfway through the novel that we get beyond the confusing faux philosophy and begin to dig beneath the surface of the characters of the three survivors.  It’s only then that the novel comes together but for me it was too little.


Kinder than Solitude is published in the UK by Fourth Estate. 

My copy was provided by NetGalley


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